Richard Murphy, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and president of the Middle East Institute, and Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and the author of three books on Syria, addressed a Middle East Briefing on January 28, 2000.
I strongly favor an Israeli-Syrian treaty. It is in the interest of the Syrian, the Israeli, and the U.S. governments, and it could be achieved this year. The public knowledge about the state of the talks is limited to the working document that was leaked by the Israeli press. While this document reveals that there are numerous issues that have not been settled among the parties, the number of agreements reached is nevertheless surprising and impressive.
The United States is interested in a Syria-Israel treaty for several reasons:
* Both parties will benefit from such an agreement, leading to more stability.
* The treaty will boost the normalization of Israel's relations with virtually all Arab states.
* Helping Syria and Israel grasp this opportunity to reach an agreement is consistent with what has been bipartisan U.S. government policy since 1973.
* President Clinton has a personal interest in making this a part of his legacy.
From my contacts with Syrians, both officials and citizens, I know that peace would be broadly supported in their country, especially one signed by President Hafiz al-Asad. Syria's business community is particularly interested in an opening to Israel.
I observed the first Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement concluded in the spring of 1974, and watched how it has kept the Golan Heights quiet for 26 years. Asad observed the agreement signed with Israel in 1974 to the letter, being very well aware of the consequences.
Costs to the United States: Both sides can be expected to be very generous in estimating the costs of peace to themselves and what the U.S. government will have to pay them. Economic assistance to them will be essential, yet getting Congress to appropriate funds for Syria will be difficult, if not impossible. But it should be remembered that assistance to Syria need not be at the expense of the American taxpayer. Since the Arab-Israeli summit of 1991, the Europeans and the Japanese have both shown a readiness to help support the cause of peace, and they could fund the Syrian portion.
Shepherdstown and the road ahead: Both sides bring very deep suspicions with them to the talks. Syria doubts that Israel will agree to return all of the Golan Heights it occupied in 1967. In fact, the Syrian spokesman said that Israel's lack of commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 borders caused the suspension of the talks at Shepherdstown. It is unlikely that either Asad or his successor will compromise on the basic question of the Golan. That has become an article of faith in Syrian politics and is not a bargaining chip.
For its part, Israel refused to relegate its security concerns to second place. Israel points to Syria's bellicose positions over the decades and its sponsorship of violence against Israel by Palestinian and Lebanese factions.
Barak has a major and continuing problem to persuade his citizens of the advantages of a Syrian peace deal-a problem that has been complicated by Syria's strict refusal to engage in public diplomacy and by Asad's failure to define exactly what kind of peace he envisions. This is why the Israeli side leaked the working document: to show its public that a range of understandings on normalization has been agreed upon, thus buttressing Barak's position.
By way of introduction, I note that what counts in Syria is Hafiz al-Asad's control of power; he and the ruling Alawite minority of Syria sees almost everything through this prism. I surmise that Asad sees a deal with Israel as jeopardizing his grip on power because it would open his country up to outside influences and thus challenge his totalitarian rule. Elements within Syrian society would be hammering for their say, voices for political participation would be heard, and human rights groups would emerge. I therefore predict that there will be no treaty between Syria and Israel.
Should I be wrong, however, and such a treaty does materialize, it would not be in the interest of the United States. The U.S. government should not endorse such a treaty, and least of all should it support it financially. From an American vantage point, I worry about the Syrian-Israeli negotiations for three main reasons: I do not believe that the negotiations will bring about real peace; Asad does not keep his word; and a treaty would bolster a failing Asad regime.
Not real peace. Syria-Israel talks will not achieve real peace. The Syrian government has not changed its deep and wide bellicosity towards Israel in any meaningful way. The frigid reception that Barak received from his negotiating counterpart, Syrian foreign minister Faruq ash-Shar`a, was symbolic of the Syrian government's profound reluctance to deal with Israel. Rather than trying to make peace, I see the Syrian government using the negotiations as a mechanism to court the West. Asad wants to end, or at least dampen, Washington's opposition to his regime. He ultimately hopes for decent relations between Damascus and Washington, which will prop up his regime; he shows no interest at all in a truly changed, harmonious relationship with Israel.
Asad untrustworthy. Like other totalitarian rulers, Asad is not a ruler who keeps his word. Having dominated his country for thirty years, he does what he likes, both in domestic and foreign affairs. A treaty with him is worth about as much as one with Hitler, Brezhnev, or Saddam Husayn; he will not abide by promises or signed treaties. As a matter of fact, his regime has failed to abide by treaties in many cases through the years, including ones signed with Turkey, Israel, and Lebanon. Syria has fulfilled these treaties when this was convenient and ignored them when not. Hence, any document eventually signed by Israel and Syria would be binding on the Israeli side and voluntary on the Syrian side.
Bolstering the Asad regime. The extent of the failure of the Syrian state is extraordinary. Judging by such indices as paved roads, literacy, health care, and other indicators, Syria's economy is at the very bottom internationally. Worse, it is in free fall, without any positive signs. It compares to that of a failed African state. A Syrian-Israeli treaty is likely to lead the United States to provide aid and smoothed the way for Syria to join world markets, thereby acting as the sponsor of a failing totalitarian regime that continues to sponsor international terrorism, build weapons of mass destruction, and host Nazi criminals. This contrasts with the usual U.S. policy toward rogue states. When it comes to Cuba, North Korea, Libya, and Iraq, we try to squeeze the regimes by impoverishing them economically and weakening them militarily. The goal is at minimum to reduce their threat and at most to bring about a change of regime. Strangely, when it comes to Syria (and also, to an extent, the Palestinian Authority), Washington takes the opposite approach, of trying to enfranchise dictatorships.
Summary by Assaf Moghadam